There is an odd sort of political bubble emanating from my home state of Mississippi. And like most bubbles, it has more to do with wish fulfillment than reality.
As Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff observed in their classic This Time Is Different, “there are usually remarkable similarities of past experience” linking manias that, in retrospect, seem so obviously unhinged. Believing that tulips are the most valuable commodities in international commerce or betting that house prices can only go up requires a suspension of critical thinking that never ends well.
Now we have the absurd notion that the failure of an obscure Mississippi state senator to win a Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate is a blow to the conservative cause. It’s a downright silly idea that, like all wrong-headed thoughts, doesn’t improve when it’s shouted. Chanting nonsense might induce a state of euphoria in Hare Krishna devotees, but it doesn’t help win many arguments.
There was a conservative NRA- and Right To Life-endorsed candidate in the Mississippi race, one who opposed Ronald Reagan’s 1986 amnesty for illegal immigrants, as well as any similar efforts by President Bush and Obama. Unlike his opponent, he was a veteran who fought the Obama administration’s cuts to the military, including plans to reduce the Navy to a dangerously low level of ships.
He had a history of reducing spending when he was chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He had co-sponsored anti-Obamacare legislation with Senator Ted Cruz. When his home state last had a liberal Democrat as governor, he worked hard to defeat that governor while his opponent voted in the Democratic primary.
That conservative would be Thad Cochran, whom I walked neighborhoods for years ago, and had the privilege to advise closely in this last election.
His opponent, Chris McDaniel, campaigned with Ron Paul, who wants to tear down the border fence because it “keeps us in.” McDaniel was one of four members of the state legislature who opposed anti-drug laws. He claims he’s not a trial lawyer but gives Continuing Legal Education lectures on class action lawsuits.
He knew so little about public policy that he told a New York Times reporter that the military budget was a “small” portion of the federal budget. Generally it doesn’t help your conservative credentials in Mississippi when a Times reporter is correcting you on basic facts about the military.
None of these facts are disqualifying, but they also don’t indicate McDaniel is the conservative hero he makes himself out to be. Neither does losing an election in Mississippi, which McDaniel did on June 24.
While I appreciate that early death can do wonders for a rock star’s reputation, there’s little reason that losing a race should elevate an inexperienced state senator to some cult status. Conservative Republicans stand for personal responsibility. They usually find whining to be an unattractive quality best left to toddlers and MSNBC hosts.
Mississippi doesn’t have an automatic recount, but no state that does requires it for races with a margin of victory greater than 1 percent. Most don’t go to a recount unless the margin is 0.5 percent or less. Chris McDaniel lost by 2 percent but is insisting he “won’t surrender.” It’s reminiscent of when Hillary Clinton had clearly lost to Barack Obama in 2008 but said she was taking time to “consider her options” rather than immediately conceding. Options? You lost.
This time next year, odds are that Thad Cochran will still be a U.S. senator and Chris McDaniel will be back where he started, on the talk radio circuit. To be sure, there’s no problem with any citizen exhausting all legal options in any situation, but what’s troubling about the McDaniel hoopla is what it might say about the future of conservatism.
Maybe I’m old school, but I still believe conservatism’s goal should be to serve as a serious, grounded governing philosophy. It certainly was that during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a man Chris McDaniel holds out to be his hero.
But if that conservative ideal of governance is nudged aside and replaced by something that’s just a rallying cry for angry lost causes, it’s hard to imagine how the left won’t win. And when you look around and see how many oddball groups are using the McDaniel loss as a fundraising gimmick, it’s even more depressing.
If that vision of a “shining city on a hill” is replaced by a cul de sac where opportunists gather to raise money from the bitter, conservatism will start to resemble everything Ronald Reagan opposed.
Governor Mike Huckabee likes to say he’s a “conservative but he’s just not mad at anybody about it.” Chris McDaniel has stood that on its head: he’s not particularly conservative but he’s mad at everything. I get that supporting a longtime incumbent like Senator Thad Cochran rubs some people the wrong way. Fine. That’s why we have elections. But let’s not allow disappointment after a close election push us into embracing a mean, unserious, self-defeating version of conservatism.
Chris McDaniel is now saying the “election was stolen” without providing a shred of evidence. It’s an extraordinarily irresponsible statement by an elected official. On Monday, his lawyer, who was last seen losing to Haley Barbour in a run for governor by almost 60 points, made allegations of voter fraud, again without evidence. This is exactly the sort of “throw it up against the wall and see what sticks” legal approach we Republicans ridiculed Al Gore for in the Florida recount.
The Supreme Court ended that sad chapter. Ultimately, we are a country of laws and despite what Chris McDaniel seems to believe, losing an election is not proof that a system was rigged. It just proves you lost.
Let’s hope any conservative enchantment with loss fades and is replaced with a new passion for governing. And to govern, as many have observed, you must win. So let’s embrace a conservatism that is happy about winning, not angry about losing.